One of the top ways kids can learn and advance in a meaningful way is by building their ability to problem solve. At its root, problem-solving is all about finding answers to questions and solutions for undesired effects. 

Luckily, we have something called the engineering design process (EDP) that gives us a series of steps which make it easy to find novel solutions. Many of the lessons in STEM revolve around using this process for approaching real-world problems that need solving. 

How Learning Loss Impacts Students

Every summer, students become inactive in their learning and “forget” portions of what they learned throughout the school year. So one can only imagine how teachers and parents might feel about this extended hiatus during COVID. We’ve spoken about the COVID slide before, and if the degradation of knowledge during regular summers is any indication of what’s occurring during COVID, it’s worrying to think where students will be in their learning when they do finally get back in the classroom next year. 

As previously mentioned, STEM projects are all about helping students with their critical thinking skills. Rather than having kids who can just memorize facts to pass a test, students must be able to truly understand a topic and utilize this knowledge to create new solutions. 

But how much are students’ scores affected by these periods of time-off, including extended winter holidays? It has been shown that most students lose around one month of their knowledge or one-tenth of a standard deviation of scores on tests during a typical summer. This is not an insignificant amount of learning to lose. Plus, the studies show that students living in lower socio-economic areas experience this impact more harshly. 

What is most alarming is that the higher the grade level of the students, the greater their learning loss. This can be explained by the simple logic that the skills and knowledge that we learn at higher grade levels are more complex and therefore require more practice to maintain.

Finally, this trend tends to impact mathematics the most, followed by spelling and literacy. We can attribute this to the fact that kids usually continue to read and write when they are not in school, but rarely are subject to any math problems in their vacation. 

So what can we do to counter the STEM challenges of middle school and make sure our students stay sharp year round? By doing something simple like setting aside a day to be your “STEM Day” and work on real-life STEM problems, you’re working wonders for your child’s brain and education.

STEM Activities for Middle School Students

Finding great STEM challenges for students in middle school is easy. There are lots of good ideas out there, and we’ve included a few below:

LEGO: One of the simplest things children can do to keep their problem-solving skills sharp is to become a LEGO mechanic. Some great videos on the Homegrown Learners channel show how to use LEGO to teach children in elementary or middle school about technology, engineering, math, and building.

Bridge-building challenge: You might remember this one from your science class. Just using glue, craft sticks, a ruler, and parchment paper can help set kids up to build a bridge. You can even make it a competition to see which bridge can hold the most weight! 

Build a miniature robot: In tutorials like this, students can learn how to build a small robot. This requires mechanical and electrical skills and also teaches them some of the early principles of robotics along the way. 

Why do apples turn brown: Take something that a kid would know from their day-to-day, like apples turning brown, and teach them why this might happen. They’ll learn about oxidation, and you can even try the experiment of testing whether lemon juice can stop apples from turning brown. 

STEM Activities for High School Students

Although STEM challenges for high school students may be a bit more complex, there are many things you can do to help keep their problem-solving skills sharp. 

Preventing soil erosion: We are starting to introduce more worldwide issues into the STEM equation now. Have your students learn to build a seawall that can protect coastlines from eroding. This requires them to calculate the energy of the waves and use their calculations to find the best material for the job. 

Video game physics: Take what your students are already interested in, and add a STEM spin to it. As you’ve probably noticed, the physics of video games is very different from how the real world works. Ask your students to map out the basic laws of their favorite video games to better understand these differences. No kid is going to pass on the chance to play a little more of their favorite game!

Growing food during a flood: Natural disasters like floods commonly devastate communities, and many don’t realize how hard floods make it to grow food. Here is a classic STEM challenge in which students explore the real-life issue of flooding in Bangladesh and how farmers can continue to grow post-flood. 

Creating clean water: As you know, there are many different areas in the world where people don’t have access to clean water—some even in our own country. Get your teens to build and test their water filtration systems. Not only will this teach valuable lessons related to STEM, but it can also get your students thinking more about humanitarian problems in this context. 

Taking STEM Out of the Classroom

From having fun with LEGO to dealing with the practicalities of clean water, there are many different things you can have students doing that will help stimulate their problem-solving skills. And they don’t have to take up much time either. Just by spending an hour or so a day getting children doing actual STEM-related activities, you’ll be able to keep their minds sharp. 

Time off from school can either be a time of knowledge degeneration or a period for kids to combine play and science. When your students head back to the classroom, make sure they’re in the right mindset. And who knows, you might even have fun yourself!